About The Author
Karen Thompson Walker studied English and Creative Writing at UCLA, where she wrote for the UCLA Daily Bruin. She worked as a newspaper reporter in and around San Diego before attending the Columbia MFA program. A former book editor, she wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before work and sometimes while on the way to work. Born and raised in San Diego, California, where her book is set, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband. She is the recipient of the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship as well as a Bomb Magazine fiction prize.
The Age of Miracles is her first book. Set in an ordinary Californian suburb, this unsettlingly plausible debut centres around the adolescent Julia and her family, who awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the Earth has suddenly begun to slow, the days become longer and soon the environment is in disarray.
In this exclusive interview Karen talks about the origins of her book in the 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunami in Indonesia and which did actually affect the earth's rotation, the ways in which humans adapt even to profound uncertainty and how her former career as an editor informs her own writing.
Questions & Answers
The sun rising and setting is probably the most basic certainty in all of our lives. Where did the idea come from to challenge that surety?
I got the idea from something that really happened. Shortly after the 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunami in Indonesia, I read that the earthquake was so massive that it affected the rotation of the earth, shortening the length of our 24-hour day by a few microseconds per day. Even though the change was very slight, it was unsettling to discover that something we take for granted -- the predictable rising and the setting of the sun -- was actually in flux. I began to wonder right away what might happen if a much larger change occurred. I wanted to explore how people would react, how they would live in the face of such a major shift.
The way you describe the move away from the basic rhythm of day and night and the consequences to the natural world of the earth's slowing rotation, is truly horrifying. What kind of scientific research did you have to do in order to ensure plausibility?
I did some research at the outset, but I came across many of my favorite details accidentally. Whenever I read an article about extreme weather or circadian rhythms or the mysterious extinction of a species, I would try to add those details to the book. Eventually, I had an astrophysicist read it for scientific accuracy, which was a nerve-racking experience. I was relieved by how many of my details he found plausible, but I also made some adjustments based on what he said. For example, I had assumed that the slowing of the rotation would make gravity feel slightly weaker, but the opposite is actually true. After the slowing, soccer balls fall a little faster to the ground, and birds and airplanes are tugged a bit more forcefully toward the earth.
This is in part also a coming-of-age tale. What made you choose an 11-year-old protagonist, one who is also experiencing the profound inner turmoil of puberty?
The slowing is an event that affects the whole planet, but I wanted to make sure that the story always felt very intimate. Focusing on the daily lives of one young girl and her family was a way of telling this global story in a way that I hoped would feel personal and emotional and real.
I also think that adolescence is a particularly fascinating time of life -- at least in retrospect. For Julia, it's the time when she first begins to see that her parents have flaws and that her childhood friendships might not last to adulthood, and she's also falling in love for the first time. Set against a looming catastrophe, all of these ordinary highs and lows become even more intense and meaningful than they might otherwise be.
Apart from those who choose to opt out of the government-imposed method of dealing with the problem, most people quickly adapt to the new way of life, with it hardly even making headlines any more. Does this show the admirable resilience of the human spirit or simply our ultimate powerlessness in the face of things we can't control - notwithstanding all the trappings of the modern world?
To me, it seemed realistic that people would try to carry on with their ordinary lives, especially because the disaster unfolds gradually rather than all at once, but whether that response is a form of denial or just adaptation is a harder question to answer. Either way, I think it's a very human impulse. I grew up in California, where everyone knows that a catastrophic earthquake is possible, but we Californians mostly lived as if we weren't in any danger. We built houses and played soccer. We went swimming and walked on the beach. I wanted to capture that feeling in The Age of Miracles, the way that daily life so often persists, even in the face of uncertainty, and how most of us go through our days as if we'll live forever.
Through Julia you hold out a tiny possibility for hope, that the things that have been done can perhaps be undone. Did you feel it was important to keep that door open?
It was important to me that this story unfold in a natural and authentic way. I wasn't sure exactly how the book would end until I got there, but I knew I wanted to avoid anything that would seem artificial or simplistic. I wanted it to feel true. For me, the book is about living with an uncertain future, and whenever there's uncertainty, there's always the possibility of hope.
Do you see the book as belonging to a particular genre, such as science fiction?
I don't think of it as being part of one particular genre. My aim was always to try to write a book that I as a reader would enjoy, and I guess most of my favourite books would be classified as literary fiction. I love books that combine a great story with great writing, especially these, which definitely influenced me as I wrote The Age of Miracles: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Road by Cormac McCarthy; Blindness by Jose Saramago and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
How did your background as a book editor inform your own writing?
Working as a book editor left me without much free time, so it was sometimes a struggle to find the time to write. (I wrote this book in the mornings before work, an hour or so each day.) But working as an editor was also very good for my writing. As an editor, I used to think of myself as a kind of representative of a book's future readers, someone whose job it was to identify the parts of a story that felt slow or unclear or underdeveloped. For me, a big part of learning to write fiction was learning to imagine the reader and then to empathize with that imagined reader -- to begin to sense what might move or confuse him, what might excite or delight her. Working as an editor helped me develop that skill.
How do you follow up such a striking debut?!
I'm very happy to be working on a new book, but I'm a bit too superstitious to say much about it yet.